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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 June, 2003, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
Visiting Brixton with Letwin

By Ben Davies
BBC News Online politics staff

It may be just across the river from Westminster and a matter of minutes from his London home but Brixton is miles away from the world that Oliver Letwin inhabits.

The Old Etonian, Cambridge graduate cut a somewhat incongruous figure as he and his entourage visited an inner city success story before touring an estate apparently blighted by prostitution and drug abuse.

Later in a speech at a nearby cinema, Mr Letwin echoed the words of Martin Luther King Jnr saying that he too believed in a dream - the establishment of a neighbourly society.

But on his walk Mr Letwin came face to face with the harsh reality of life in some parts of inner city Britain.

Oliver Letwin
Mr Letwin told people in Brixton of his dream

As he strolled along surrounded by a somewhat high-profile parade of community representatives, police, press, politicians and their aides he was ambushed by angry local residents.

Mr Letwin had just seen an example of a neighbourhood "reclaiming" a playground from drug dealers.

Now he was hearing the day to day story of an estate that had absorbed some of the illegal activity pushed out of central Brixton.

Prostitutes were using the stairwells as a place to take clients, pushers were selling drugs and residents were having to put up with all the associated crime - and the police rarely responded to calls.

Prostitutes have sex on the stairs and you have to walk past them when the lifts are broken
Ros Munday

Some of the residents of the St Matthew's estate didn't even know who they were talking to - they just saw an opportunity to highlight their plight.

Ros Munday told Mr Letwin how her 71-year-old father - a frail man who was recovering from a stroke - was mugged and when it transpired he had no money he was punched in the face.


"Prostitutes have sex on the stairs and you have to walk past them when the lifts are broken. It's just disgusting," she said.

The earlier part of the visit - which had gone more to plan - was to a project that had reclaimed a playground in Pulross Road, Brixton from drug dealers.

It is not enough just to displace the problem
Oliver Letwin

But even after that had been achieved a crack-related shooting took place in front of dozens of children.

The 1999 incident galvanised the local community into working with the police and other agencies to tackle the fallout from hard drug use.

But when the bad elements are moved on they always find somewhere to go.

Success stories

All this chimed in rather nicely with what Mr Letwin had to say about creating "sustainable social progress" through communal effort.

Later he added: "There are success stories and I welcome that.

"What has worked at the playground is policing on the ground, working with the local community, but not 500 yards away, where drug users have been displaced, residents tell me it takes four hours before anyone attends to anything - it is not enough just to displace the problem."

Soon we were all off to hear his speech.

It was interesting to see a self-proclaimed "Jewish atheist" talking about faith, hope and miracles while sharing a platform with evangelical Christians.

It was even more interesting to see how it would sit with a Brixton audience when a white Tory politician invoked Martin Luther King.

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One man let out a loud "tchah" - but then he made a similar noise at the end of every sentence that Mr Letwin uttered.

Other than that the politician was politely heard before being told in the subsequent question session that community action was not cheap and that success stories required resourcing - and not just over the short term either.

Mr Letwin's message to the people of Brixton was that it was community, not bureaucracy that provided the answer.

The message to Mr Letwin from the people of Brixton was that communities also need cash if they are to see off the social problems that blight them.

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